NASA to Test Rocket-Powered, Saucer-Shaped Vehicle for Mars Mission

NASA's Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) mission scientists show their test vehicle to members of the media at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Wednesday. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) mission scientists show their test vehicle to members of the media at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Wednesday. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

NASA’s LDSD project aims to develop the capacity to land larger payloads on Mars, perhaps even humans. But first, NASA needs a way to decelerate capsules traveling at supersonic speeds.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory here – one of NASA’S leading research and development centers – gave journalists a peek at the future Wednesday. Get out your notebooks and scratch out the words, “flying saucer” and put in, “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator” (LDSD).

That’s what they’re calling the new, rocket-powered, saucer-shaped test vehicle they will be propelling into near-space this June from the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii. The purpose: to investigate how to land on Mars with bigger payloads.

NASA’s LDSD aims to to slow down the descent of a large payload at supersonic speeds through the thin atmosphere of a planet like Mars by creating atmospheric drag.

Looking almost exactly like a miniature version of the spaceship that beguiled Richard Dreyfus in 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the new LDSD is propped up on a special, multipronged trailer in the five-story room where it was assembled here. The press had to don surgeon hats, booties, and special outerwear to get close, while scientists explained the advancing needs of exploring Mars.

The new saucer, er, LDSD, is about 6 feet high and 22 feet in diameter.

“We expect that as we go forward with our Mars missions that we will go to larger and larger vehicles,” said Mark Adler, NASA’s LDSD demonstration mission manager. He says the current technology for landing in non-Earth atmospheres dates back to NASA’s Viking program, which put two landers on Mars in 1976. The same, basic parachute design has been used ever since – as recently as 2012 to deposit the Curiosity rover on the Red Planet.

But to conduct ever-more-sophisticated exploratory missions in the future, NASA will likely want to land much heavier spacecraft, so it is having to advance its technology for heavier payloads.

The Sojourner rover, which was the Mars Pathfinder mobile robot that landed on July 4, 1997, was a microwave-sized vehicle that weighed about 24 pounds. NASA then moved to two Exploration rovers in 2003, each about 400 pounds, and then to the Curiosity rover in 2012, which is about the size of a Mini Cooper auto. But the rocket thrusters that helped land the Curiosity rover don’t work for larger payloads.

The LDSD program represents the next big step.

“Especially if we are going to land humans on Mars some day, we will get to much, much, much larger payloads, and we’ll need much larger decelerators to slow them down,” said Mr. Adler. The future could include landing two-story structures as big as a house or small building.

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SOURCE: The Christian Science Monitor
Daniel B. Wood

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